Lowell’s Jim O’Brien was a driving force behind an historic football game in Ireland. SUN/BOB WHITAKERSun staff photos can be ordered by
Lowell's Jim O'Brien was a driving force behind an historic football game in Ireland. SUN/BOB WHITAKER

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LOWELL -- Like so many of civilization's great ideas, this one arose over a pint of Guinness.

Former Boston College tackle Jim O'Brien was in Dublin in 1986 to check on an Irish basketball team in which he had invested $1,000. The pub where he and some friends wound up had an NFL game showing on the television. Aware of O'Brien's football past (he was a 10th-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions in 1960), his friends suggested, "Why don't you bring a game over to Dublin sometime?"

O'Brien laughed. "Have another pint," he said.

But the idea stuck in O'Brien's head. And it gained traction the next morning. Across the street from the hotel where O'Brien was staying was an Irish Rugby Football Union stadium into which a college football game would fit quite nicely. O'Brien encountered locals curious about American football, seconding his friends' suggestion in the pub.

Of course such a great idea -- that became reality when Boston College on Nov. 19, 1988 beat Army in the Emerald Isle Classic before 42,525 fans at Lansdowne Road -- deserves a commemorative book. That Joycean spark occurred while O'Brien helped assemble materials for a 25th reunion of Boston College players and coaches from that first American collegiate football game in Ireland. That reunion occurred last October when Army visited Alumni Stadium (the Eagles won that one, too).


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The pictorial book, in the style of a high school yearbook (O'Brien was once in the class ring and yearbook business), will be unveiled at the Irish-American Partnership's St. Patrick's Day breakfast on Monday at the Boston Harbor Hotel.

Jack O'Connor of O'Connor Studios in Tewksbury has assisted O'Brien, 75, a Lowell resident who expects the nearly 100-page book to be priced at $30. Richard Finnegan, a political science professor at Stonehill College who has authored or co-authored six books on Ireland, has also contributed. The game coincided with Dublin's millennium celebration, so the book has benefited from the city's official photographs made available to O'Brien.

"We wanted to capture not just the game, but the atmosphere of (Dublin) at that particular time," says O'Brien. "Ireland was in the throes of a major recession. Eighteen percent unemployment. There was a terrible mood about the country. We thought by getting this game over there, it would give a life to the economy and to people's spirits. And it did."

O'Brien pitched the idea for the game to Bill Flynn, BC's athletic director at the time. He recalls Flynn looking askance at him.

"I always knew you were a little off," Flynn told O'Brien.

Flynn as a BC assistant football coach had recruited O'Brien to the Heights in 1956 out of Hamden (Conn.) High to play for coach Mike Holovak.

O'Brien persisted. Flynn pulled from his pocket what looked to be a napkin, on which were written BC's future football opponents. "Maybe Army would be interested," suggested Flynn, who was a friend of Army athletic director Carl Ullrich.

Technically an Army home game, the event went off two years later after much hard work and surprisingly few international complications. The Defense Department was at first hesitant about having one of its service academies risk a profitable home gate playing in a foreign country that was not a member of NATO, says O'Brien.

One call from a member of BC's class of 1936 brought the Pentagon around to the Emerald Isle Classic being a great idea.

"Tip got it taken care of," says O'Brien.

That would be Tip O'Neill, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives at the time.

Sen. Ted Kennedy and Boston mayor Ray Flynn attended the game. So did Margaret Heckler, who was the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.

But due to animal quarantine regulations, the Army mule was banned from Ireland. Army rented a mule from a Northern Ireland livestock breeder to serve as its mascot for the game. 

Almost 15,000 fans (nearly all BC rooters) crossed the Atlantic to see the game, most on tour packages O'Brien had arranged. The game kicked off at 7:30 a.m. Boston time and was televised by ESPN. Coach Jack's Bicknell's Boston College squad, in the throes of a 3-8 season, rose up to win 38-24 over Jim Young's Army team. The Cadets finished that season 9-3, losing to Alabama, 29-28, in the Sun Bowl.

O'Brien recalls Dubliners not necessarily understanding American football but embracing the atmosphere and loving the spectacle. The beer in the stadium ran out before halftime, he says.

O'Brien, later president of the New England chapter of the Irish Chamber of Commerce, helped to bring a Pittsburgh vs. Rutgers game to Dublin the following year and a Holy Cross vs. Fordham game to Limerick in 1990.

Five college football games have been played in Ireland since BC and Army did it first. On Aug. 30, Penn State and the University of Central Florida will play at Dublin's Croke Park.

"Seldom does a day or a week go by that somebody doesn't mention it," O'Brien says of that BC-Army game in Dublin in 1988. "It's nice to be able to sustain that memory. You can only do something for the first time once."

And later you put together a book to commemorate it.

Follow David Pevear on Twitter and Tout @merganser10